What Beowulf can Teach Us With Paul Begadon (Podcast)

This is the first episode of Fate Going As It Must: A Beowulf Talk Show! On the show I’ll talk with people who are fans of Beowulf to try to understand how they discovered the poem and why they think it’s still important.

My first guest is Paul Begadon, whose writing about old stories (including Beowulf) you can find at woodkern.net. We cover quite a few topics, including:
Favourite movie adaptations

  • The importance of storytelling
  • What Beowulf can teach to us today: overcome your demons
  • Stories of katabasis; the Jungian interpretation of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s Mother as journey to the subconscious for the power to succeed
  • Best introductory translation of Beowulf
  • What does “Hwaet” even mean?
  • Robert Graves and Grendel’s Mother as ancient goddess
  • The kenning in Beowulf’s name

Feel free to leave your thoughts on the show and on the topics covered in the comments. Or, go ahead and answer this question: What is your favourite adaptation of Beowulf?

The theme music for the show is:

The Pyre Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License


Twin Peaks and Beowulf!?

Bobby Briggs from Twin Peaks stunned by Beowulf.

We can all share in Bobby’s shock. Image from http://www.gramunion.com/robotbeowulf.tumblr.com/155345786712

Spoilers abound below. If you’re not done with Twin Peaks The Return (or the entire series) just yet, read on at your own risk.


It’s human nature to see patterns where there might not be any. It’s also human nature to want to combine the things you love even if they don’t seem likely to mix. That’s where today’s post is coming from.

Having seen and mostly digested Twin Peaks The Return, and being quite familiar with Beowulf, I noticed a few similarities. Especially when it comes to the monsters featured in both works.

Now, I don’t think that these similarities point to any answers in the Twin Peaks universe. Nor do I think that David Lynch is a secret Beowulf fan who wanted to work through the poem’s themes and motifs in his own art. I just noticed that there are some similarities between the oldest piece of English literature and the newest piece of television art.

And I want to share them with my readers.

This comparison will go through the monsters of Beowulf since that’s where the meat of this is. Though a case could be made that Lynch’s at times directionless-seeming storytelling is quite similar to Beowulf‘s asides and loosely related side stories.

There is one Twin Peaks theory at work in this comparison. This is the idea that the ancient evil force that Gordon Cole calls Judy in part 17 of The Return is the same as The Experiment that we see in parts 1 and 8.

Now, let’s get right into those monsters!

The Monsters in General

Beowulf fights Grendel as depicted by Santiago Garcia and David Rubin's graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf.

Beowulf battles Grendel in Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s Beowulf. Image from http://bit.ly/2jVrgOn.

Beowulf features some sort of unidentified troll-like monster, its mother, and a dragon. Twin Peaks has two monsters, essentially: Killer BOB and Judy (Jao De). I’m not sure how evil spirits from other dimensions or outside of time trace their lineage, but I think it’s safe to say that Judy is Killer BOB’s mother. So there’s one parallel.

But there’s more to the BeowulfTwin Peaks monster connection than mere surface similarity.

Like Grendel and his mother, BOB and Judy are encouraged by human action. In the case of the Grendels, the construction of Heorot disturbs them and provokes Grendel to attack. Heorot, however, is no military barracks but a place meant for peaceful gatherings and where new friendships could be forged or old ones strengthened. For BOB and Judy, the human action that gets them into action is the nuclear testing at the Hanford site. A nuclear bomb is not really much like a drinking hall, though it is interesting to think about it in terms of its ultimate goal: to ensure, through either use or mere presence, the continuation of peace. As part of this comparison,

I think it’s also neat to think of the hall, a place of peace, inciting the Grendels in a world rife with everyday conflict, whereas the bomb is a weapon of destruction in a world that enjoys everyday peace.

Grendel/Killer BOB

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.” From: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_beowulf_grendel.jpg

Moving on from that rabbit hole, though, we come to Grendel as an agent of terror. Likewise, BOB terrorizes those he inhabits and the lives of those around his hosts. Also, how Grendel and how Killer BOB are defeated is similar.

In Beowulf, the poem’s hero wrestles Grendel into submission with his bare hands. He even goes so far as to tear off the monster’s arm with just his hands since his grip has the strength of 30 men. In Twin Peaks something similar happens: Through a strange sequence of events Freddie ends up buying and putting on a green gardening glove that lets him punch with the power of a pile driver. This strength overcomes Killer BOB when he’s in his ball form, shattering him to pieces.

Freddie's Beowulf-like gardening gloved hand, Killer BOB Killer in Twin Peaks.

The arm.

Those pieces, like Grendel in the poem, then run away. And it seems likely that after the events of part 17 of The Return, BOB is as dead as Grendel is by the end of Beowulf.

The BOB Bubble that Freddie beats, Beowulf-like, in Twin Peaks.

The BOB bubble that Freddie bursts.

Grendel’s Mother/Judy

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837

Grendel’s mother also shares general traits with how Judy operates. When Grendel is killed Grendel’s mother shows a level of calculated intelligence when she only kills and carries off one of Hrothgar’s men. Not only does this action show that she has a concept of “an eye for an eye”, it suggests that she is aware of the nature of feuds.

Judy, a being of supreme evil, operates with similar careful calculation. She does not just let Cooper walk Laura to the white lodge when he plucks her from death in the original timeline/dimension of the series. Instead she plucks her away from him and brings her to another timeline/dimension entirely. But Judy doesn’t just hide Laura anyway. She brings the girl to a place where she holds sway (and runs a coffee shop apparently).

Judys Cafe in Twin Peaks The Return, no parallel in Beowulf.

Judy’s has it all — breakfast, homestyle cooking, and a slick white horse ride.

Cooper ventures into the place that Judy has made, where she seems to have some sort of dominion in an effort to get Laura back. Similarly, Beowulf dives into a lake to get to the Grendel’s underwater hall where Grendel’s mother holds power.

Heroes’ journeys to strange places to face powerful foes isn’t anything all that new or rare in stories. But I find it fascinating that both heroes venture into what is essentially enemy territory in similar ways. Beowulf dives until the currents pull him into a strangely lit cavern. Cooper travels down a road until he passes under electrical lines and ends up in this strange, yet familiar, new place.

Further, Beowulf goes into his trial with the sword of the enemy-turned friend Unferth. Cooper goes into it with a friend whom we’ve seen as being untrustworthy and manipulated throughout the season in Diane. In both cases, these helps prove useless in the confrontation with the power that they are fighting. Unferth’s sword does no damage to Grendel’s mother, and Diane forgets who she was as she settles into her new role as Linda in this new timeline/dimension.

Twin Peaks' Cooper reads a note - a missing page of Beowulf.

Cooper reads Linda’s weird note.

The Dragon/The Experiment/Judy

A dragon and its hoard like the one in Beowulf.

A dragon and its hoard.

Now, there is no dragon in Twin Peaks. Something so blatant or obvious just isn’t David Lynch and Marc Frost’s style. But. I think that there are more similarities between Beowulf‘s story and Twin Peaks The Return‘s main conflict. Though they require some mental squinting to see.

Up until the end of The Return, what exactly the vaguely female creature credited as “Experiment” was was unclear. I think it’s fair that this creature fits the role of Grendel’s mother quite perfectly. But. I also think that this creature fills the role of the dragon as well. She doesn’t transform into some sort of giant scaly creature for Cooper to shoot at or anything like that, but what the Experiment comes to be by the end of The Return is on the same level as the dragon in Beowulf.

In the poem, the dragon is not just the final foe that Beowulf faces. It is an ancient thing, greedy and prideful, that starts to terrorize Beowulf’s lands when one of its treasures is stolen. Of course, this dragon doesn’t spend any of its treasures, it merely hoards them. It is the inspiration for the vain and greedy Smaug from the Hobbit. Likewise, Judy seems to hoard whatever those bubbles that she and The Fireman sent out around the mid point of The Return. Once she wins them over to her pile that is. As she does with Laura.

I think that Judy is much more than the vaguely female shape we see in parts 1 and 8. The Experiment, with its ability to blend people’s faces faster than a Blendtec mashes diamonds, is just an embodiment, just a shell. It could be argued that that isn’t even correct, and the Experiment as Judy is merely a perception of the kind of evil force that simply cannot be embodied.

In short, Judy is bad news.

In Beowulf the dragon is bad news.

It burns down Beowulf’s meeting hall, terrorizes his people, and threatens their very existence. Just like Judy.

But, just like the dragon, I think that Judy only flexes its true muscle, shows off its true power as an evil force, when its most prized possession is stolen away from it. When Coop saves Laura from ending up in plastic on the beach in Twin Peaks, it’s like someone just stole something from the dragon’s hoard. From that moment on in The Return, I think that Judy transcends (if that makes sense) into its true self and is able to create all new realities (timelines/dimensions) in which to hide Laura.

Meanwhile, having passed through the lodge twice now, Cooper is somehow older, perhaps more wizened. This comes across in the diner scene where he takes down the three cowboys. Yet, he warns the fry cook that the oil he just dropped the cowboys’ guns into may be hot enough to set them off. Like Beowulf when the dragon attacks, this is an older, more tired hero that we’re looking at. Yet he is certain of himself and confident enough to find Carrie Paige (Laura), bring her back to Twin Peaks, and try to remind her of who she really is. Just as Beowulf is confident enough in his own abilities to fight the dragon.

Both stories then end.

Twin Peaks' experiment, much like Grendel's mother in Beowulf.

The eerie Experiment from the glass box.


With Beowulf, the dragon is defeated but Beowulf is mortally wounded. And the future of the Geatish people, and the whole way of life that the poem portrays, is unclear.

With Twin Peaks, Carrie Paige remembers who she is, and Cooper seems to wake up — which should be a victory. But instead we hear the same scream that filled the woods when Laura was swept away from Cooper earlier in the episode. We then hear a faint ethereal “Laura” and the electricity flickers. The house where Laura lives goes dark. Then the entire screen goes dark.

Thematically, these endings have much in common. Both are bittersweet, yes. But more than that both endings demonstrate the ending of something incredible. Whether the Geats survive without their king, or whether Cooper and Laura triumphed over that wave of evil they were up against are unclear. Both are unwritten. But both are certainly art.

Twin Peaks' Palmer house has its lights go out, like Beowulf's punching Grendel's lights out.

The dimmed Palmer (?) house.

And that’s my attempt to bring these two disparate bits of media together. An early medieval epic poem and a surreal detective/supernatural television show. To me it all makes some kind of sense.

But what do you think about this comparison? Is it even possible to compare two things that are so different in time and place and content? What are your own pet theories about the ending of Twin Peaks?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

Beowulf gets brief when talking of the Grendels’ hall



The Original Old English

My Translation

A Quick Interpretation


Beowulf and his band of Geats carrying Grendel's head.

J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack.
Image found at: http://bit.ly/2frmbiU

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Beowulf ends his story with his account of fighting Grendel’s mother and then explains his reward.

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The Original Old English

“‘þæt wæs Hroðgare hreowa tornost
þara þe leodfruman lange begeate.
þa se ðeoden mec ðine life
healsode hreohmod, þæt ic on holma geþring
eorlscipe efnde, ealdre geneðde,
mærðo fremede; he me mede gehet.
Ic ða ðæs wælmes, þe is wide cuð,
grimne gryrelicne grundhyrde fond;
þær unc hwile wæs hand gemæne,
holm heolfre weoll, ond ic heafde becearf
in ðam guðsele Grendeles modor
eacnum ecgum, unsofte þonan
feorh oðferede. Næs ic fæge þa gyt,
ac me eorla hleo eft gesealde
maðma menigeo, maga Healfdenes.
Swa se ðeodkyning þeawum lyfde.
Nealles ic ðam leanum forloren hæfde,
mægnes mede, ac he me maðmas geaf,
sunu Healfdenes, on minne sylfes dom.'”
(Beowulf ll.2129-2147)

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My Translation

“‘That was Hrothgar’s most grievous of those sorrows
that had long befallen that leader of a people.
Then that prince implored me while troubled in mind
to perform another heroic deed in the tumult
of the darkened waters, to venture my life;
in short, perform a glorious deed. He promised me proper reward.
I found in those surging waters, as it is well-known,
the grim and terrible guardian of the deep.
There we two were locked in hand-to-hand combat.
But soon the water seethed with blood, and I had cut off
the head of Grendel’s mother in her battle hall
with a mighty sword edge. With difficulty
I carried my life from that place, but it was not yet fated
for me to die, and so the protector of warriors gave me
a multitude of treasures, the son of Half-Danes.
Just so, that king of his people acted in accord with custom,
never had I any want for reward while with him,
he gave me great gains, granted me beautiful treasures,
the true Son of Half-Dane, and ever were they of my choosing.'”
(Beowulf ll.2129-2147)

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A Quick Interpretation

Beowulf keeps his story very tidy. There’s no crossover between his encounter with Grendel and his encounter with Grendel’s mother. There isn’t any mention of the Grendels’ underwater hall, or their armory full of ancient weapons either. Beowulf doesn’t even note how he saw Grendel’s body on some sort of alter and then chopped off his head.

Of course, his account of these fights is quite a bit more precise than the poet’s version. Though leaving these things out seems like a weird omission. Why not share how he took Grendel’s head and an ancient sword hilt as a prize? Or, for that matter, why not mention nailing Grendel’s arm to the eaves of Heorot?

I think that Beowulf leaves these things out because of Hygelac. The Geats’ king is, after all, supposed to be a giant. So using monstrous body parts as trophies is probably not something Hygelac wants to hear about.

Also, I have no way to confirm it, but it would be fascinating if this is the same reason why Beowulf doesn’t go into detail about the giant’s sword he found.

Which makes me wonder: What would the Anglo-Saxon people have thought of living giants if there are all of these ancient weapons allegedly made by their ancestors? Why aren’t these real life giants celebrated as smiths or designers and hoisted up as the best of artisans?

My only guess is that the idea of the giants (“eoten” in Old English) is somehow influenced by the Biblical account of the Nephilim. According to Genesis 6:2 and 6:4, these creatures were the offspring of human women and angels from the time before the great flood. Which placement only deepens the potential influence on Beowulf‘s creator since the found sword’s hilt tells of the flood.

But, then again, giants are a fairly common creature in European folklore and story. Even in the various versions of the mythical story of Britain’s origins, the Brut, giants make a few appearances.

Why do you think Beowulf cuts out mentions of Grendel’s arm and head being treated like trophies?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Next week, Beowulf gives Hygelac his treasures.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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The trouble with Beowulf humanizing Grendel’s mother

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837

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Beowulf tells of Grendel’s mother’s late night visit.

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The Original Old English

“‘Swa we þær inne ondlangne dæg
niode naman, oððæt niht becwom
oðer to yldum. þa wæs eft hraðe
gearo gyrnwræce Grendeles modor,
siðode sorhfull; sunu deað fornam,
wighete Wedra. Wif unhyre
hyre bearn gewræc, beorn acwealde
ellenlice; þær wæs æschere,
frodan fyrnwitan, feorh uðgenge.
Noðer hy hine ne moston, syððan mergen cwom,
deaðwerigne, Denia leode,
bronde forbærnan, ne on bæl hladan
leofne mannan; hio þæt lic ætbær
feondes fæðmum under firgenstream.'”
(Beowulf ll.2115-2128)

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My Translation

“‘So we took pleasure in that place
all the day long until another night came upon men.
Late within that dark Grendel’s mother appeared,
ready for revenge for the injury she suffered;
she made a journey full of grief. Death had carried off her son,
death egged on by grim faced Geats. That monstrous woman
avenged her son, schemed to boldly steal a hall dweller for her loss.
There on the floor was Aeschere for the taking,
the wise old counsellor departed from this life at her touch.
But, when the morning came, none could
burn up the dead of the Danish people by fire,
nor could that dear man be lain upon a pyre —
she bore the body in her fiend’s embrace to her home beneath her mountain stream.'”

(Beowulf ll.2115-2128)

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A Quick Interpretation

Whoever the Beowulf poet or poets were one thing is clear. They cared a whole lot more about Grendel’s mother than Beowulf does.

The poet took pains to build her up as this malevolent force that was smaller and perhaps more timid than Grendel but far more fierce and intelligent. Here, though, she just appears.

This retelling makes it very tempting to think that Beowulf simply doesn’t need to explain Grendel’s mother to Hygelac. Beowulf definitely doesn’t need to explain her to the poem’s audience. After all, there’s no need for Beowulf to try to swirl some mystery around her, since that mystery is already solved.

But why would he not need to explain what she is to Hygelac? As we’ll find out next week, it’s because Beowulf’s exploits have already been heard of.

But I think there could be more to it.

As someone who was apparently monstrous himself, Hygelac could no doubt understand a mother’s sympathy for her monstrous child and her seeking revenge for him. I think that’s why Beowulf goes directly to the more human elements of her character.

But Beowulf almost skips over the monstrous elements of Grendel’s mother entirely.

I mean, his description of Grendel’s mother makes her out to just be a mother seeking revenge. Aside from living “beneath her mountain stream” (“under firgenstream” (l.2128)), there’s nothing here that suggests that she’s a monster. Instead, she sounds like she’s just a mother driven to murder by the death of her child. Which is troubling because Beowulf does kind of kill her in the end. Even if, as we’ll see, he shortens that part of his story to just a few lines and skips over a lot of the grisly details of their fight.

But, what do you think is going on with Beowulf’s description of Grendel’s mother? Is she too humanized? Is Beowulf making this easier for Hygelac? Or for himself?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Next week, Beowulf shares a very condensed version of his fight with Grendel’s mother.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Wealhtheow, Grendel’s mother, and Hygd: The women in Beowulf

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

Aethelflaed, the anglo-saxon woman who wasn't queen but fought off vikings.

An image of Aethelflaed, fighter of vikings and the daughter of King Alfred the Great and Queen Ealhswith. Image from https://younghistorian7.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/a-look-at-some-anglo-saxon-queens/

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The poet takes a break from Beowulf here to share a few details of Hygelac’s kingdom with us.

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The Original Old English

“Het þa up beran æþelinga gestreon,
frætwe ond fætgold; næs him feor þanon
to gesecanne sinces bryttan,
Higelac Hreþling, þær æt ham wunað
selfa mid gesiðum sæwealle neah.
Bold wæs betlic, bregorof cyning,
heah in healle, Hygd swiðe geong,
wis, welþungen, þeah ðe wintra lyt
under burhlocan gebiden hæbbe,
Hæreþes dohtor; næs hio hnah swa þeah,
ne to gneað gifa Geata leodum,
(Beowulf ll.1920-1931a)

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My Translation

“Then it was commanded that the prince’s treasure be carried up,
ornaments and plated gold. It was not far from there
for him to go to the treasure bestower,
Hygelac, son of Hrethel, he who dwelled within
his own home, living near the sea-cliff with his companions.
The building there was magnificent, the king was of princely fame,
one exalted in the hall, along with Hygd, his young queen,
a woman wisely accomplished, though she had lived
within the enclosed stronghold for but a few winters,
daughter of Haereth. Yet she was not bent down by vanity,
she was not sparing in gifts to the Geatish people,
she gave a great many treasures.”
(Beowulf ll.1920-1931a)

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A Quick Interpretation

So far there have been two major women in this poem. And they are definitely at opposite ends of the spectrum of good/bad.

First, we met Wealtheow, the queen of the Danes. She was a woman who came from a group that Hrothgar or his family must have enslaved, based on her name. Despite these origins, the poet suggests that she’s a good queen who embodies all the best qualities of courtly women: quietly powerful, dominant in the hall, and a master of social niceties.

Next, we met Grendel’s mother. She is pretty much the opposite of Wealhtheow. After all, she’s supposed to be a monster. So instead of Wealhtheow’s happily fitting into a courtly setting and really shining, Grendel’s mother runs her own hall, answering to no one, and brutally striking out at those who attack her and her kin.

Now the poet introduces us to Hygd, the wife of Hygelac. The first thing we learn about her is that, much like Wealhtheow, she’s likely from a foreign people. After all, the poet notes that Hygd fits right in with the Geats, “though she had lived/within the enclosed stronghold for but a few winters” (“þeah ðe wintra lyt/under burhlocan gebiden hæbbe” (ll.1927-1928)). So Hygd is certainly a woman who wields her courtly power well and justly. Though there is a bit of a creepy note in mentioning how young she is.

Marrying women off when they would still be considered “girls” today was common practice in earlier societies, but that fed into the very purpose of marriage back then: cementing business and political deals. Love could be a factor, but more often than not I think it was hoped that it would come about after the vows were exchanged. Hence the steady popularity of love stories like those of Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Iseult, or Lancelot and Guinevere. People were hungry for the idea of relationships built on love, even if they ran against whatever political or mercantile interests were at stake.

There’s also the issue of how Hygd fits into Hygelac’s court. She’s introduced along with the building and the talk of treasures. She’s introduced as Hygelac’s wife, sure, but there does seem to be a note of her being something Hygelac owns. Though in both Wealhtheow and Hygd’s cases there’s a sense that these women are able to create a great deal of power. And yet, there’s a hint of danger that lingers around women. In fact, the poet seems to be trying to strike a balance between good women and evil women, since the following passage describes the vanity and vice of Modthryth.

But, what do you think of the women in Beowulf? Is the poet trying to balance them out (and definitely not doing so with the men)? How does Hildeburh from the Finnsburgh section of the poem (ll.1068-1158) figure into this balance? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Next week, the poet tells us the story of the wicked queen Modthryth.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Beowulf: Musical theatre as character exploration

Currently out from writer/director Aaron Sawyer at the Red Theatre is a musical simply (and a little confusingly) called Beowulf. The trailer on the show’s website grabbed my attention as tightly as a man with the strength of 30 could. But, not being able to jet down to Chicago and watch it myself, I’m only able to write about it based on reviews from Third Coast Reviews and The Chicago Reader.

Sawyer’s adaptation of Beowulf is quite an original take, though its focus isn’t anything too new. The basic premise is that Beowulf and Grendel’s mother have been trapped together for all time by Odin. Simple enough. But their past together has not been erased. Grendel’s mother grieves for the loss of her son, and Beowulf questions his heroism as the two become romantically entangled.

These details make this show sound like quite a romp indeed, but it’s definitely playing off of themes that exist in the original poem.

Grendel’s mother is definitely charged with sexual energy in the poem itself. After all, she is the controller of dangerous femininity (giving birth to monsters, wielding a concealed dagger, overpowering Beowulf and landing on top of him (almost fatally)). And she’s certainly contrasted with the much more socially constrained queen Wealhtheow. Wealhtheow is portrayed as nothing but demure, though there are hints of her own desires for Beowulf but she never acts on them.

Grendel’s mother on the other hand acts on her desires for Beowulf so vehemently that she comes very close to killing him. I mean, she pounces on him and then tries to stab him with a dagger. An act of fury, to be sure, but it’s hard for me to not see the symbolism in what she does while on top of him. The dagger she pulls out is pretty phallic as a symbol. Stabbing is a form of penetration. And a female stabbing a male while on top of him seems (at least to me) like a pretty clear metaphor for male rape; a thing no doubt circled by shame and sorrow in the Anglo-Saxon society from whence Beowulf came.

But, interestingly enough, (and maybe this is where Sawyer got the idea for making Grendel’s mother the focus of his play and Tolkien got the idea for having fewer women in the Lord of the Rings trilogy than you could count on both hands), Beowulf never shows much interest in Grendel’s mother.

In fact, he never really shows much interest in any woman. He’s just concerned with glory and heroism (as he is in that trailer).

But maybe Beowulf’s apparent asexuality is part of the bigger picture of the poem. In keeping with medieval ideas of males somehow being closer to god than females, perhaps part of Beowulf’s manly virtue is that he’s beyond all that icky sex stuff. Even when we see him rule his own people there’s no real indication that he’s ever been married or had children. There’s not even any explicit mention or clear implication that he had some kind of mistress.

Ultimately, it sounds like Sawyer’s Beowulf is one that, though it strays pretty far from the source material in terms of story, keeps very close to its characterization of Beowulf and of Grendel’s mother. As goofy and incoherent as Jack Helbig of the Chicago Reader says it is, I think those elements are built into Sawyer’s premise. How else but farce could locking Grendel’s mother and Beowulf in a room turn out? As such, I think this take on Beowulf would be worth seeing just to get a glimpse of two of Beowulf‘s most interesting characters.

Is Beowulf an introvert?

Beowulf’s Struggle with Story
It’s Just a Simple Ancient Sword

Beowulf and his band of Geats carrying Grendel's head.

J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack.
Image found at: http://bit.ly/2frmbiU

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Beowulf tells the story of his fight against Grendel’s mother. This is his rough draft performance.

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“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘Harken unto me, son of Halfdane,
lord of the Scyldings, we who have been to the sea-lake
have brought back booty, a mark of fame, for all here to look upon.
I escaped that choppy conflict,
the war beneath the waters, ventured through
the risky deed; the fight was nearly taken from me,
but God shielded me.
In that struggle I could not bring Hrunting
to bear, though it is a noble weapon;
but the lord of men allowed
that I might see hanging on the cave wall
a shining magnificent sword of elder-craft — often
will the wise aid the friendless — that I seized and brandished as my own.'”
(Beowulf ll.1651-1664)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Beowulf’s Struggle with Story

Beowulf has told many stories before. And he’s been called a boaster. That’s a label that fits quite well since his stories of fighting off sea monsters to protect Breca, or of taking out groups of monsters definitely seem embellished. But now he’s telling a story about an event that we witnessed. Well, witnessed the original telling of, anyway.

So what?

Well, one of the things that I’ve noticed on rereading this passage is that Beowulf’s telling of the fight with Grendel’s mother is that it’s very straightforward. It’s almost as if he’s shrinking away from the center of attention, as an introvert might.

Beowulf says that it was a close fight, that Hrunting wasn’t living up to its quality, and that he found a giant’s weapon to finish the job. All of that checks out, since that’s a pretty accurate summary of the fight with Grendel’s mother. Though it’s interesting to note that Beowulf doesn’t go into any details. He doesn’t admit that Grendel’s mother pinned him to the ground, or stabbed at him with a knife. If “specificity is the soul of narrative,” as John Hodgman is so fond of saying on his internet court show, Judge John Hodgman, then it seems like Beowulf is mangling the soul of his story.


Maybe because it’s so fresh in Beowulf’s mind. Coming so close to death, facing such terrifying enemies and circumstances, it’s fair to say that it’ll take more than a few hours to fully process what he’s been through. If that’s the case, then perhaps Beowulf is scanty on the details in this retelling because so little time has past and he’s still reeling.

Or maybe it has nothing to do with processing the events.

Instead, maybe Beowulf just needs more time to come up with embellishments that will hang together and keep the story coherent while elevating it to the tale of a grand heroic deed. Beowulf is a warrior and not a poet after all.

Thus, it might take some time for him to come up with the best way to phrase things like “she mounted me” or “I was almost stabbed to death but my mail saved my life.” Both details are important for the story’s full impact, but could come off as a little less than all-conquering. And, if you think about it, any story about a close call needs to maintain a sense that the hero isn’t really doomed, despite the circumstances. But being pinned by a woman and nearly stabbed to death are a little too dire to be brushed off as events on the way to a heroic close.

In other words, without embellishing those parts of the fight, Beowulf’s victory could be seen as less a victory from skill and more one from luck.

Why do you think Beowulf’s retelling of his fight is so general when it comes to the actual events of the fight? Why doesn’t he just give the play-by-play?

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It’s Just a Simple Ancient Sword

Normally, descriptions of battles and speeches are full of compound words. This is something I noted back in October 2015, while working through lines 1043 to 1049. Beowulf’s speech in this week’s passage is both, but there is only one compound word: “eald-sweord”1.

This lack of compound words is strange, but I think it links back to the events being so fresh in Beowulf’s mind. His use of simpler language reflects either his raw impressions of events or his need for more time to really embellish things as much as he might like to.

But what I wonder is why “eald-sweord”1 is the compound in this passage.

It stumped Clark Hall and Meritt since it doesn’t even appear in the edition of their dictionary that I’m using. Even C.L. Wrenn glosses the word simply as “ancient sword,” though there’s a dagger beside it, indicating that such interpretation is uncertain.

Wrenn’s definition is intuitive, since that’s exactly what the two words mean when combined, but “eald-sweord”1 doesn’t seem to be attested to anywhere other than this instance in Beowulf. So, it must have been a word that was made up especially for the occasion.

Which makes it all the more interesting to me since it’s such an intuitive combination of words for “ancient sword”. There are no strange, culture-specific senses of the words combining together, it’s just “old” and “sword” smashed together. The spontaneity of which, leaves me even more convinced that Beowulf, as much of a storyteller as he is, is struggling to improvise one about his fight with Grendel’s mother.

1eald-sweord: ancient sword (?). eald (old, aged, ancient, antique, primeval, elder, experienced, tried, honoured, eminent, great) + sweord (sword)

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Next week, Beowulf assures Hrothgar that he’s finally taken care of his monster problem.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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